“Scars,” writes Cormac McCarthy in his National Book Award–winning novel All the Pretty Horses, “have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” It would not be much of a leap to imagine this line issuing from the mouth of Archer Cole, one of the pivotal characters in expatriate author D.W. Wilson’s debut novel. Archer is a deserter from the U.S. army who winds up in the eastern B.C. area of Invermere during the height of the Vietnam War, where his presence has far-reaching consequences for Cecil West, West’s son Jack, and grandson Alan.
Archer’s scars are psychological, but they are also, most obviously, physical: severely burned by napalm during a tour of duty overseas, his first encounter with the Wests involves getting shot in the leg by Jack, a fourteen-year-old hopped up on “a mishmash of adrenalin and instinct” who initially mistakes Archer for a burglar.
The encounter is typical of the way events will unfold for these characters: it is marked with violence born of machismo and resulting from equal parts volition and impulse. And it results in scars – both visible (the bullet wound) and unseen (the accumulated weight of guilt that dogs the men in the book).
Wilson is part of a group of authors – which also includes John Vigna and Matt Lennox – writing hyper-masculine stories in the mode of McCarthy, Hemingway, and Carver. (The emphasis on the ripple effect of violence through the years is McCarthy’s influence; the laconic, spare prose style is courtesy of the other two.) But Wilson’s most significant debt may be to a less obvious source: the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Like the Boss, Wilson takes as his subjects working men who prefer outdoor pursuits and manual labour and who tend to blow off steam by drinking beer and fighting. Also like Springsteen, there is a romanticism to his writing that occasionally threatens to tilt over into sentimentality.
The most egregious example of this tendency involves the protracted death of a three-legged, butter-coloured English mastiff named Puck. It is a curious feature of this type of novel that normally taciturn men can be reduced to bundles of naked emotion by injury that befalls their dogs or horses; it is equally notable that human women frequently fail to rouse in them a similar level of empathy. Indeed, the women in Ballistics – Archer’s daughter Linnea, Cecil’s fiancée Nora, and Alan’s girlfriend Darby – are all ciphers or peripheral figures: it’s a man’s, man’s world, and this is a man’s, man’s book.
Structurally, the novel follows two parallel streams. The first is set in the summer of 2003, during which wildfires spread out of control across much of the B.C. interior. Narrator Alan, now in his late twenties, crosses the province at the behest of his grandfather, who has suffered a heart attack. Fearing he may not have long to live, Cecil wants to make peace with his son, who took off many years ago. The reasons for Jack’s flight are explained in the novel’s second stream, set in the 1970s, and narrated in the first person by Archer. This story begins with Jack shooting Archer in the calf, and features a menacing interloper from the U.S. named Crib who drives a Ford Fairlane and may or may not be searching for American deserters hiding in Canada.
The numerous confrontations with Crib provide some of the strongest moments in the novel, including an extended sequence in which Jack and Archer witness the American and another man dump a mysterious object into the lake; the stranger, named Morgan, then appears at Cecil’s cabin where a tense confrontation with Archer unfolds. The incipient violence in this scene is well handled, and Wilson’s measured, deliberate prose heightens the sense of creeping unease.
The wildfires sweeping across the province provide a nice metaphorical counterpoint to the betrayals and confrontations that threaten to engulf Wilson’s entwined protagonists, and the repeated image of a bullet’s trajectory, including a passing nod to Zeno’s paradox, (with an appropriate acknowledgment from Alan as to its heavily philosophical aspect), provides a fitting resonance with the novel’s plot elements. “It doesn’t matter how something starts,” Archer muses at one point, “or even how it progresses. What matters is how things end.” If Zeno’s paradox (here referred to as the “Gunsmith’s Paradox”) holds, however, a bullet will never reach its target, and no journey will ever end.
Novels, of course, must come to an end, and the paradox of Ballistics is that after all the accumulated Sturm und Drang of violence, betrayal and deceit that has preceded it, the culmination of Alan’s journey is strangely muted. The anticipated confrontation between father and son never materializes; in its place we get a quietly elliptical reunion that leaves as many questions unanswered as it resolves. Wilson refuses to provide clichéd, Hollywood-style bombast, opting instead for a finale that is self-consciously literary. What is clear, however, is that after all the wildfires and shootings, the fisticuffs and threats of violence, the layered betrayals and mysterious occurrences, the novel that began with a gunshot ends not with a bang, but a whisper.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor of Quill & Quire magazine.